BBC Two’s Upstart Crow is a six-episode comedy about William Shakespeare’s work and family life in 1592 England. Each episode uses one of Shakespeare’s “known timeless poetry” as reference – what or who inspires it and how Shakespeare comes up with the title and one or two of its immortal lines.
In Upstart Crow, the big-brained-low-browed William Shakespeare (David Mitchell) is a playwright trough and through. He uses flowery words that rival fashionable men’s pants and garters at the time and “mixes up the words” of his sentences as he describes nouns or express his disgust over the inefficiency of the English transport system. Despite his mid-level success with Henry VI, Shakespeare is no more than a country bumpkin for the London elite who do not share his transportation woes. The root of this snobbery, led by Shakespeare’s bitter rival and Master of the Revels Robert Greene (Mark Heap), is Shakespeare’s lack of noble birth and Cambridge education. It is a good thing Shakespeare has the support of man-about-town government spy masquerading as playwright Kit Marlowe (Tim Downie). However, Marlowe’s support does not come cheap, as he uses his charm to persuade Shakespeare to let him have the authorship of some of Shakespeare’s plays to further boost his cool factor.
Aside from Marlowe, Shakespeare is aided by Kate (Gemma Whelan), the overly intelligent daughter of Shakespeare’s London landlord who wants to act in Shakespeare’s plays and to advance women empowerment, and the overly outspoken Bottom (Rob House), Shakespeare’s servant in London. Kate and Bottom has the Bard’s greatest interest at heart, act as sounding boards, and give their honest opinions on his half-written and finished plays. Although Kate is book smart, it is Bottom who normally gets the meaning of Shakespeare’s flowery phrases.
Since it was “illegal for girls to do anything interesting” at that time, Kate and other women are not allowed to act in plays. Shakespeare has a company of actors, Henry Condell (Dominic Coleman), Richard Burbage (Steve Speirs) and the irritating William Kempe (Spencer Jones), to bring his works to life. One of them has to be a woman and wear two half-coconuts to resemble a woman’s bosoms.
Shakespeare’s life in London is all about how to improve his standing as a playwright, but when he travels to his family home in Stratford-upon-Avon, wife Anne Hathaway (Liza Tarbuck), daughter Susanna (Helen Monks), and parents John (Harry Enfield) and Mary (Paula Wilcox) turn his life upside down with brutal honesty and personal problems. Except for Susanna, they are illiterate and think that Shakespeare’s brand of writing is long and boring. No matter what they think of his works, Shakespeare always tells Anne of the happenings in London while Anne help him sort out which bits to include in his future plays.
Watching Upstart Crow is a little jarring, mainly because of the long and winding talks. By the time a character gets to his point or the punchline of a joke, everything is a muddle of balling brooks, bumshanks and bubbly dildos. It does not help that majority of the characters pepper their speeches with lewd words, which make the conversations all the more kilometric. However, Upstart Crow is an educational show when it comes to 16th century English history, culture and language. It features the long-running feud between England and Scotland in a Macbeth-inspired episode, the oft-mentioned problematic transport system, the inequality between men and women, and of course, the poetry of Shakespeare.
In terms of characters, David Mitchell is charming as the trusting Shakespeare. His facial expressions when Greene and Marlowe converse in Latin are priceless, and his delivery of the flowery words are wonderful. He also has the perfect legs for those form-fitting balling brooks-revealing tights. J Liza Tarbuck’s Anne Hathaway is very homely and exudes maternal instincts. When she kneads the dough, she is believable as the mother with three children who lived in 16th century. On the flip side, Spencer Jones’ smug William Kempe is not funny at all. He is just plain irritating and a waste of space.
Speaking of irritating, the canned applause and laughter is grating. I like to laugh when I feel doing it not because a recorded cheer of studio audience tells me to. Instead of prodding me to break into a smile, it just gets in the way of hearing what the characters say.
Upstart Crow is an interesting take on a particular phase of William Shakespeare’s life. It shows his thought process in writing his masterpieces and how he struggles to bring them to the masses. Also, it touches upon his family, how his mother looks down on his wife Anne for being older and a commoner, how his father besmirches the family name, how Susanna is a handful bichington of a daughter and how Anne acts as a glue to keep the family together while Shakespeare hones his craft. In the midst of this chaos, Shakespeare remains grounded and kind-hearted, albeit a little bitter for not being of noble birth.
William Shakespeare Quotes from BBC Two’s Upstart Crow – Season 1 (and what they mean):
“The two tunnels that lie beneath the bridge be blocked. “ – William Shakespeare, when he means “snotted nose”.
“Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo.” – William Shakespeare when he means, “Why are you Romeo?”
“Leaping amphibian caught in the ruby pipe which starts with a swallow but knows not of birds.” – William Shakespeare when he means, “Have you got frog in your throat?”
“We unleash the most parasitic creature in Christendom.” – William Shakespeare, when he means “the English posh boy”.
“If you write a play, I fear it would be like that which stinks but be not fish, fertilizes plants but be not compost, and is the last stage of the digestive process but be not a glass of port in a pipe of tobacco.” – William Shakespeare, when he means “crap”.
“And so am I like the fulsome cleavage of a buxom saucy wench.” William Shakespeare, when he means “much looked down upon”.
“It won’t stay in that which supports a hat but be not a hook, has a crown but be not a king, and is fringe with hair but be not my balling brooks.” – William Shakespeare, when he means “earlobe”.
“You be that which though it have tits have no breasts, and though it have balls be not a game of tennis.” – William Shakespeare, when he means “man”.
Other Quotes from BBC Two’s Upstart Crow – Season 1:
“Love is the angry thorn upon the false rose, and I, am a prick.” – Florian Greene
“Where she breathes, flowers bloom. Where she sings, pixies dance. Her most billowingly flatulent fartle barfle be sweetly scented than all the perfumes of Arabia.” – Florian Greene
“I always think that a sentence sounds better if you mix up the words of it. It’s one of my best tricks.” – William Shakespeare (David Mitchell)
“As a dramatist, I take the view that a fat man with an ax saying, “Close your eyes, love” Thwack isn’t quite as compelling theater as Frigid Liz bitchslapping her cutesome Caledonian cals, Mary, in a bit of queen on queen action.” – William Shakespeare
“You can’t be an actor, you’re a girl. Where will you put the coconuts?” – William Shakespeare
“Clever girl is an ugly girl, Kate.” – Christopher Marlowe (Tim Downie)
“Your name is like a cold sore. It’s one everybody’s lips.” – William Shakespeare to Christopher Marlowe
“I must hasten to insert my nose between the set of the next royal buttocks before other oily courtiers fill the gap.” – Robert Greene (Mark Greene)
“Getting a bad review is much worse than getting the plague, because at least with the plague, the person who gave it to you dies.” – William Shakespeare to Bottom
“The noble peacock does not hang his head. He displays his bumshanks with magnificent feathery plumes.” – Christopher Marlowe to William Shakespeare after the latter receives a bad review.
“If I turn up in form-fitting tights, everyone will see I’ve got balls.” – William Shakespeare
“What is a potato but a starchy tuber? What is tobacco but a dried weed? What is a corn cob but a big yellow bubbly dildo?” – William Shakespeare